From the author: The Royal Occultist must solve a series of murders involving an airborne killer of unknown origins...
“Well, there’s something you don’t see every day.” Charles St. Cyprian let the blanket fall, once more hiding the corpse sprawled on the wet pavement. He stood, fumbling for his cigarette case. “Anyone know where the head’s gone, by chance?”
Park Street had been closed off at either end by uniformed constables, isolating it from the rest of Mayfair. Music wafted along the cool night air, and faint laughter, providing a stark counterpoint to the grim scene before him. The dead man had been mangled – that was the only word for it – and seemingly in mid-air to boot. Speckles of glass from a broken electrical torch lay scattered in a wide arc about the body, as well as a number of engineer’s tools. Most had been fragmented on impact, but a few were still intact.
“Not as such,” Inspector Moxley said. “Still looking, though.” Moxley was a short, pugnacious man, with unfashionable whiskers and a nose that had been broken more than once. He dressed by the book and took his tea the same way, when he took it at all.
“Do let me know when you find it.” In contrast to Moxley, St. Cyprian was a Leyendecker canvas come to life. Dark and slim, in a three-piece suit, he was a creature of clubs and cocktails. “What do you make of it?”
“Looks like an animal attack to me.”
“And what sort of animal could reach a man all the way up there, pray tell?”
Moxley grimaced. “Eagle of some kind. Trained to attack on command, maybe.”
“I’ve seen stranger, I admit.” St. Cyprian found his cigarette case, and withdrew one. Tapping it on the case, he added, “What was he doing up there?”
Moxley checked his notebook. “Cable work. Telephone lines.”
Moxley shrugged. “Way his mate had it, sometimes they don’t get finished before sunset. Usually it’s no bother.”
“Might I speak to this mate of his?”
“He won’t be no help. Whatever he saw, it scared him out of his wits.”
“Even so, I’d like to try.”
“Have at it.” Moxley pointed to a nearby stoop, where a bedraggled looking man sat. St. Cyprian picked his way carefully over the debris towards the fellow. He was all elbows and knees, with a three-day scrum of beard, eyes fixed on the body of his former co-worker.
St. Cyprian crouched beside him. “Hello there. My name’s Charles. If you’re up for it, I’d appreciate a word or two…?”
“A-a skull, a bleeding skull,” the man whispered absently, staring at the body. His voice was as vacant as his gaze. “Just – just came down out of the dark and – and…” His words trailed off into unintelligible mumbling, and he began to rock back and forth, like a child in need of comfort. St. Cyprian patted him awkwardly on the shoulder and stood. He looked at Moxley.
“You’re right, that is odd.”
“You ever heard anything like it?”
“No, but there are more things in Heaven and Earth and all that.” St. Cyprian looked up. A web of telephone cables and wires stretched overhead. Even in the gloom, he could tell they were badly in need of repair. “So, he goes up to check the problem, and something comes down to meet him.”
“Something what looks like a skull,” Moxley added.
“Yes. Peculiar, that.” St. Cyprian looked up again, puffing meditatively on his cigarette. “This is definitely one for us, I think. You were right to call us in, Inspector.”
Moxley nodded and visibly relaxed. “I as hoped you’d say that. I’m not ashamed to say I’m at a loss. Give me an honest murderer any day. This sort of thing does my head in.”
“Mine as well, if we’re being honest,” St. Cyprian said. “My jurisdiction, though, so my responsibility, what?” Phenomena of this sort fell well within the purview of the Royal Occultist. The office had a fine pedigree, stretching back to Doctor Dee and the reign of Good Queen Bess, and terminating in the current owner of No. 427 Cheyne Walk, Kensington – namely, himself.
The office had a working relationship with the Metropolitan Police and Scotland Yard, one St. Cyprian had done his best to maintain. That meant making himself available as a consultant when these sorts of matters arose.
According to Moxley, this was the fourth such attack in as many nights, all within the confines of Mayfair. The police were doing what they could to keep a lid on things, but four men dead, all in similar circumstances, was a scandal waiting to happen. Each of the dead men had perished between the hours of dusk and dawn. There were no apparent links between them, save the savage nature of their deaths. He glanced at the survivor again, rocking in place. “Were there any other witnesses this time?”
“No one saw anything, but some passers-by mentioned a sound.” Moxley looked uncomfortable. “Like wings, they said.”
St. Cyprian paused, his cigarette half-way to his lips. “Wings?” He glanced up. The night was clear for a wonder, and he could almost count the stars.
Moxley nodded. “A sudden rush of wings, like whatever it was, was in a hurry.”
“Maybe it took the head with it,” a new voice observed. St. Cyprian turned as his assistant elbowed through a knot of constables, her hands thrust into the pockets of her duffel coat, her head wreathed in smoke. “You know,” she added, as she flicked her cigarette into a nearby gulley, “for later.”
“An interesting hypothesis, Miss Gallowglass,” St. Cyprian said. “Though you’ve nothing to base it on.”
“Instinct, innit?” Ebe Gallowglass grinned at him. She was short and unkempt, dressed like a barrow boy or East End rough, and wouldn’t have looked out of place in a betting shop or a Cheapside dive, both of which she frequented with appalling regularity. “Whatever it is, it’s sneaky.”
“It could be invisible.”
“That too,” she said. “Found these.” She pulled something out of her pocket. “Thought they were feathers at first.” She opened her hand and St. Cyprian frowned. He took one of the dark objects and turned it over in his hand. It was like a feather, but not – more akin, perhaps, to a scale of sorts.
“Roof. Found some blood, too.” She pushed up the brim of her flat cap and scratched her head. “Definitely one for us, innit?”
“Looks that way. I do hope you didn’t have plans.”
She peered at him. “Suppose I did?”
“We both know you don’t.” Something about this affair – about the wounds, the scales, the skull – tickled his memory. A name rose to the surface of his mind. He turned to the inspector. “Moxley, by chance were you acquainted with an inspector named Quennell?”
Moxley frowned. “Briefly. He’s retired to the seaside, last I heard. Whitstable, I think it was. Why?”
“There was a case of his with some…similarities, let’s say. He turned over his case notes to my predecessor not long after he’d brought the affair to its official conclusion. No doubt he wanted someone to know the truth of the matter.”
“Unpleasant.” He looked at Gallowglass. “Take me to where you found these, please. Moxley, if you’d like to accompany us…?”
“I’ll stay here, thank you. Not my jurisdiction, after all,” he added, somewhat smugly.
“Suit yourself,” St. Cyprian said. “Miss Gallowglass – lead the way.”
Constables were questioning the residents of the Georgian town houses that lined the street, and getting access to the home in question was no issue, save a few odd looks from the owners as Gallowglass led him to the attic, and then out through a hatch onto the roof. He paused, cigarette between his lips. There was a strange odour, fading now – acrid, and somehow familiar.
The flat line of the roof was broken by chimney pots and other sundries. Gallowglass prowled among them as sure-footed as an alley-cat. “Over here,” she called. St. Cyprian picked his way after her, noting a scattering of bloody feathers.
“Looks like whatever it was had a pigeon or two as an appetiser before it got to the main course,” he said, joining her at the edge of the roof, overlooking the street. The body was below them, easily visible in its white shroud. The cables and support wires that extended away from the roof glistened wetly in the moonlight.
Gallowglass crouched over a dark stain on the tar paper. “It touched down here, see?” She indicated the size of the stain. “Big as you, maybe.”
“Delightful,” he said, peering over the edge of the roof. “It snatched the poor bastard into the air, chewed on him, and then fluttered away, pretty as you please.”
“What do you think it is?”
“No clue.” He picked up one of the scales. “But I know someone who might be able to give us a clue.” He peered up at the dark sky, wondering if whatever it was, was still flying about. Shivering slightly at the thought, he added, “Though we’d best wait until a more civilised hour to solicit their aid.”
Moxley was happy enough to leave the matter with them, though not without the usual warnings. Officially, Scotland Yard had no time for jiggery-pokery but were quick to swoop in when there was a tangible collar waiting to be nabbed. St. Cyprian didn’t begrudge them that. Someone had to get the credit, after all.
Safely back at his Cheyne Walk residence, he spent the rest of the evening reading over Quennell’s old notes, a snifter of brandy in one hand. The inspector had been the thorough sort – meticulous in his note-taking, including several sketches.
Despite his best intentions, he woke late – too late for breakfast, but just in time for lunch. Over a hasty meal of toast and kippers, he laid out what he’d learned for Gallowglass while she slathered an obscene amount of jam on her toast. “Quennell was smart – he left out the interesting bits, but there are enough similarities that I dug out Carnacki’s old notes as well. Quennell was more forthcoming to Carnacki than he was to his own superiors.”
“Probably because they’d have called him barmy,” she said, noisily chewing her toast.
“Quite so,” he agreed, dabbing a genteel amount of butter on his own toast. “But we know better, don’t we? Carnacki made some connections of his own – Quennell’s main suspect was a certain Doctor Mallinger, a gentleman known to frequent certain social circles.” He took a bite of toast. “Mallinger, it seems, was a member of the Order of the Cosmic Ram…”
Gallowglass uttered an obscenity. St. Cyprian nodded. “As you say,” he agreed. “Likely that was why Carnacki advised Quennell as he did.” The Order of the Cosmic Ram claimed members in every echelon of British society, from the House of Lords to the meanest street-sweeper. They were an influential lot of malcontents and amateur occultists, looking to shore up the fading glory of the British Empire through means both mystical and mundane. He and Gallowglass had run up against them more than once.
“So what was Mallinger up to?” Gallowglass asked.
“No clue. Carnacki doesn’t say, but whatever it was, it sounds dashed similar to what’s going on in Mayfair. Death and dismemberment, delivered from on high.” He glanced at the samples they’d taken from the roof. The scales gleamed darkly against the white of his handkerchief. “Quennell found scales like these as well. Carnacki had one in a viewing box upstairs. He never got around to labelling it, more’s the pity.”
“Don’t look like any scales I’ve ever seen,” Gallowglass said.
“I’ve seen similar, but only through a microscope. Which is why you need to finish gulping down your breakfast so we can go.”
“Go where?” Gallowglass asked, reaching for another slice of toast.
“The Voyagers Club.” He stood, wrapping the scales carefully, and placing them in his pocket. “Come on. I want to get there before they open the bar. Old Botkin is useless once he’s had his first gin of the afternoon.”
Gallowglass shrugged into her duffel coat, a folded piece of toast jutting from her mouth like a cigar. “Botkin? That old souse? What’s he got to do with anything?”
“Well, liver issues aside, he’s one of Britain’s foremost entomological experts. If anyone can identify these scales, it’s him. Now hurry up.”
The Voyagers Club was a citadel of bad decisions, situated in the heart of Mayfair. It resided on Dover Street, alongside others of its ilk – the Albermarle, the Drones, the Diogenes, to name but a few.
It was a squarish structure, in the Georgian style, and the doorman admitted them with only momentary hesitation. While St. Cyprian wasn’t a member, the club made an exception for the Royal Occultist, whoever they might happen to be.
The club’s interior was composed of narrow corridors and large rooms, punctuated by display cases and alcoves filled with exotic statuary. Somewhere, a continent was missing its pantheons. St. Cyprian ignored the cacophonous collection with an ease born of familiarity. Gallowglass muttered to herself, casting baleful looks at any clubman who got too close. Most of them had learned their lesson after the last time, however, and kept a wary distance for the two interlopers.
Botkin could often be found the Bug Room, as it was informally known. The room was crowded with desks and shelves and display cases, full of rare insects purloined from far away locales. A number of the club’s members fancied themselves experts of the entomological, but only a few had the requisite degrees. Geoffrey Botkin was one such. Like many of the older members, he practically lived at the club, despite owning a nice residence a few streets over. Indeed, at some point he’d even moved most of research to the club.
“I’ll wait out here,” Gallowglass said, taking a seat on a bench in the corridor. “Hate the smell in there.”
“Do as you like. Won’t be a moment.” St. Cyprian entered without knocking. Normally, the room would be occupied by amateur scientists, availing themselves of the books and journals. But this morning, there was only one occupant – a young woman, stern looking and prim, who was busy filling several boxes with books and equipment.
She looked up as he closed the door behind him. “Yes?”
“Is Geoffrey Botkin around? Bit of a puzzler for him, what?”
“Then you’ll have to speak loudly.”
“Dead, I’m afraid. I’m his niece. Frances Botkin-Watts. And you are…?”
St. Cyprian blinked, momentarily taken aback. “Ah, St. Cyprian. That is, Charles.”
“Which is it, then? St. Cyprian or Charles?”
“Both. Charles St. Cyprian. A pleasure to make your acquaintance – though I wish it were under better circumstances.” He hesitated. “I…don’t suppose I could have a peek at his notes, what?”
She raised an eyebrow. “Are you an entomologist?”
“Then what good could they possibly do you?”
St. Cyprian extracted the handkerchief containing the samples and folded it back. “I need to identify these, if possible.”
She frowned and pulled a curious set of spectacles from one of the boxes. Magnifying lenses had been mounted onto it. She flicked through the lenses until she found the right one, and leaned forward.
“Archerontia Atropos,” she said, after a moment. “The African death’s-head hawkmoth.”
“Death’s-head?” St. Cyprian asked, recalling what the witness had seen. “As in, a skull?”
“Well, yes.” Her frown deepened. “Only these scales are far too large to have come from any normal moth, regardless of species.” She gave him a stern look. “Is this a joke of some sort? If so, it’s in poor taste.”
“Not a joke, I assure you. Could you be mistaken?”
She looked offended. “Absolutely not, and how dare you suggest it!”
St. Cyprian raised his hands in surrender. “Forgive me, one has to ask. Due diligence, and all that.” He folded the handkerchief and stuffed it back into his coat.
She lifted her spectacles onto the top of her head and frowned at him. “Are you a policeman of some sort?”
“Something like that.”
“And where were these found?”
“Improbable,” he corrected. He patted his pocket. “Manifestly not impossible, as you’ve seen. Hence my need to see your uncle’s notes.”
She passed him a stack of notebooks, all dated in what he recognised as Geoffrey’s sloppy hand. “What possible help could they be?”
“Maple White Land,” St. Cyprian said, flipping through the first notebook.
“A myth,” she countered, flatly.
“All too real.” He set the first notebook aside and picked up another. “Geoffrey was one of the few who’d actually been there, albeit a good few years after the Challenger expedition. He accompanied Lord John Roxton in 1913, though I’m given to understand the trip was less successful the second time around.”
“He never mentioned it.”
“I’m not surprised. If that newspaper chap Malone is to be believed, Geoffrey was almost eaten by a spider the size of a horse. I can’t imagine he was in a hurry to relive those sorts of memories, what?”
“Preposterous,” she said, shaking her head. “No such creature can exist!”
St. Cyprian chuckled. “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” He retrieved another notebook. A name jumped out at him, and he recalled an earlier conversation with Geoffrey. Several things fell into place.
St. Cyprian looked at her. “Horatio…Hamlet? The play?”
Frances stared at him. “I don’t go to plays. Is it famous?”
He hesitated. “Somewhat. I prefer his comedies, myself.” He offered her the notebook. “In any event, it’s all in here. Geoffrey’s Maple White samples were stolen, and he suspected a fellow named Tyerman was responsible. Name ring a bell?”
She frowned, flicking through the yellowed pages. “Yes. I met him once, at a luncheon. He was a quack.”
“As in duck, or…?”
“He claimed to be an alchemist.”
“Ah. That sort of quack.” St. Cyprian scratched his chin. “Tyerman…Tyerman…” The name was familiar. He snapped his fingers. “That’s the biscuit! He was a member of the Order of the Cosmic Ram. An unpleasant bunch, and Tyerman was well-suited to them.” He frowned as he said it. Things were starting to take an unpleasant turn, and a familiar one at that. He gestured. “Tall man, spare – dressed well, but always in black?”
Frances nodded. “Yes, that sounds like him.”
“Tyerman is dead. Has been for a few months.”
“Then it must be someone else.”
“Yes. Possibly.” St. Cyprian frowned, thinking. “Still, do no harm to check, especially given that his home was in Mayfair.” He paused. “Thank you for your help, Mrs. Botkin-Watts. It was much appreciated.”
“Miss,” she corrected, primly. “Botkin-Watts is my mother’s addition. She saw no reason to surrender her maiden name, and my father was a man not given to tradition.”
“Hence the double-barrel there, yes. Very well then, Miss Botkin-Watts, I shall bid you adieu.” He went to the door. “If you’re ever in the vicinity of Cheyne Walk, feel free to look me up.”
“I don’t know where you live.”
He paused. “Well. I suppose you’ll just have to find out, won’t you?”
Gallowglass was waiting for him in the corridor. She fell into step with him and said, “I suppose you’ll just have to find out then?”
St. Cyprian didn’t look at her. “What?”
“You don’t half try it on sometimes.”
He raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Might as well have propositioned her.” Gallowglass made a rude gesture.
St. Cyprian flushed. “I did nothing of the sort.”
“Cor, feel free to look me up,” she mimicked, pulling a face. “Be getting down on one knee next. Am I invited to the nuptials?”
“No. Riff-raff will not be invited.”
She nudged him with an elbow. “What would the others say, eh? Eh? Bet Highmill would have a word or three for you.”
“Nadja and I are just good friends,” he protested.
“Right, right, that’s what you call it.”
He glared at her. “Oh be quiet, you vile moppet. We are on a case, if you’ve forgotten. The game is afoot, and all that.”
“So what next, then?” Gallowglass asked.
“We need to find a certain residence. Thankfully, our quarry was a member of the club, same as Geoffrey. That means someone will know where he dwelt, before upping sticks for the Styx, as it were.”
“Funny.” Gallowglass paused. “This Tyerman was a member of the Order, like that Mallinger bloke you mentioned – that ain’t a coincidence.”
“No, I fear not. The Order plays the long game, and is quite happy to replace a piece when it is taken off the board. If this business is some affair of the Order’s, it’s best we put a stop to it post-haste. And I have a feeling we might find answers at Tyerman’s residence – or at least another link in the chain.”
A quick trip to the bar, with its bust of Quatermain over the door, and he braced several of the older members, including an aged Alpine explorer named Wilson. Gallowglass was once again left out in the corridor, being banned from the bar for previous bad behaviour. Tyerman’s name elicited hesitation and murmurs of protest from Wilson and the others, who had no interest in talking about the incident. But other parties were not so hesitant.
He could feel eyes on him as he circulated. The Order of the Cosmic Ram had infiltrated every gentlemen’s club in London, simply by dint of its membership being mostly gentlemen, even if only of the self-proclaimed variety. He’d known that there were members in the Voyagers, though not their identities. Asking questions was the surest way to get them to reveal themselves. If anyone was to know anything about Tyerman, it’d be them.
Finally, after an hour of fruitless investigation, a bulky Bollinger Club member named Hawkes pulled St. Cyprian aside. “Why do you want to know about Tyerman, Charles?” he said, puffing on a cigar. “Dead, ain’t he?” Hawkes was a thickset man who dressed in banker’s greys, save for a waistcoat that was an eye-watering blue. He claimed to be a dead-shot, and had reportedly faced down a hungry tiger on a dare, while on a safari in some far-flung province. Or so the club barbacks claimed.
“The dead are sometimes more troublesome than the living, Hawkes old man.” St. Cyprian peered at Hawkes’ cufflinks, which bore stylised ram’s heads, and smiled. At last. “They’ve changed those since I was a member,” he said, tapping his own for emphasis.
Hawkes started and coughed. “Yes, well, fashion marches on. Even for us.”
“I wasn’t aware you’d joined the Order.”
Hawkes raised his chin. “I regarded it as my patriotic duty.”
“So did I, once. A few months in the trenches taught me better.”
“Bully for you.” Hawkes peered at St. Cyprian. “Some of us are made of sterner stuff, however.” Before St. Cyprian could reply, he added, “Why are you asking about Tyerman?”
“What concern is it of yours?”
“Tyerman was a member, you know.” Hawkes signalled for a drink from the bartender. St. Cyprian did the same.
“I am aware.”
“In good standing,” Hawkes added, meaningfully.
St. Cyprian allowed himself a small smile. The sort of smile that infuriated men like Hawkes. Better than a punch to the snoot. “Also a cad. Then, those two things often go together when it comes to your lot, don’t they?”
“As you just said, you were a member once.”
“We’re all fools, when young. Age brings wisdom to a lucky few.” Their drinks arrived. St. Cyprian sipped his. Thankfully, Clancy, the club barman, had remembered the way he liked his gin and tonic. “What was Tyerman up to?”
“No clue,” Hawkes said, stiffly. “Why are you asking about him, Charles?”
“You’re aware of the recent spate of murders in Mayfair? Men yanked off telephone cables and such?”
Hawkes hesitated, just for the barest second. “Yes. What of it?”
“There might be a connection.”
“I fail to see how.”
“Luckily you’re not the one investigating, then.”
Hawkes frowned. “Don’t be obstreperous, Charles, I’m trying to help.”
St. Cyprian snorted. “Oh get off the cross, Hawkes. We could do with the wood.” He knocked back his drink and set it aside. “I’m sure the Order was aware of my involvement well before I showed up here. Or did you just happen to choose to come by today?”
“How I choose to spend my day is none of your concern.”
“Nor do I particularly care, old man. What I do care about is Tyerman – namely, his place of residence. You wouldn’t happen to know it, would you?”
“Why should I tell you?”
St. Cyprian sighed. “Frankly, I don’t care much either way. I can ask my contacts at the Yard to dig up the address.” He paused. “Of course, they’ll want to come along, and that means a great lot of uniformed plods will be tramping all over the property, poking into every nook and cranny, scribbling away in their notebooks. Not the sort of thing the Order would appreciate, I presume.”
Hawkes blanched. The Order had a certain influence, but it was a quiet sort of influence. Levers could be thrown, words whispered into ears, but some things could not be unseen. And Scotland Yard had a bad habit of keeping records.
“Berkley Square,” Hawkes said, finally, grudgingly. “Near that disreputable antiquarian bookshop. You know the one?”
“I’m familiar with it. Who owns it now?”
“A trust. They’re looking for the next of kin.” Hawkes smiled. “Might take them some time. You know how these things go.”
“I do. So the Order is looking after it, then?”
Hawkes shrugged. “Not as such. It’s been locked up tight since Tyerman passed on. We keep an eye on it, but otherwise it belongs to the cobwebs.” He took a sip of his drink. “Not thinking of undertaking a spot of burglary, are you Charles?”
“No, I’ll leave that to you fellows.”
“Then what do you intend?”
“Why, I intend to find this bally murderer of course. Thanks for the chinwag, Hawkes old fellow. Toodle-pip.” He knocked on the bar and headed for the door before Hawkes could reply. He felt the other man watching him the entire way.
“Find out what you need?” Gallowglass asked. She was laying on the bench near the door, hands behind her head, cap pulled down over her eyes.
“Yes. Up.” St. Cyprian kicked the bench.
Gallowglass sat up. “Where to?”
“Berkley Square. We’ll need torches.” He strode down the corridor, Gallowglass scampering after him. “Do you still have that set of lock-picks, by chance?”
Gallowglass grinned and patted her coat pocket. “Never leave home without them.”
“Good. We’ll need to go tonight.”
“Should we let Moxley know?”
“Not just yet.” St. Cyprian reclaimed his coat from coat-check and paused. “Not until I know exactly what we’re dealing with.”
Outside, the afternoon was already sliding into an early autumn evening. The air was crisp and cool. The perfect night for breaking and entering. Berkeley Square was only a brisk walk away, and Mayfair was waking up for the night. Lights blazed in the windows of the houses strung out around the square of green. The sounds of music drifted along with loose leaves and faint laughter.
They found Tyerman’s former residence after some searching, and a pause to procure a pair of electric torches from St. Cyprian’s motor car – now parked at the edge of the square. It was a narrow house, bunched up between two others, almost hidden from view. The sort of place one might purchase, if one was looking for a public sort of privacy. It was an otherwise unremarkable building, outwardly resembling its neighbours, save that its windows were blacked out and its door securely fastened.
Gallowglass sniffed in disdain at the state of the lock. “Cheap,” she said, when St. Cyprian asked her opinion. She pulled a leather wallet out of her coat and opened it to reveal a selection of lock-picking tools. “Think they’ll show up?” she asked, as she worked at the lock with deft fingers. “The Order, I mean.”
“The thought crossed my mind, yes. It’ll take time, though, unless Hawkes shows some initiative. He doesn’t strike me as the sort, though. That means we can have a quick butcher’s and settle the matter before the Order knows what’s what.”
“And if he does show initiative?” She gave a hiss of satisfaction, and the door swung inwards on hinges badly in need of oil.
“Then I hope you’re carrying your other tools.”
She grinned and flipped back the edge of her coat, revealing the shape of a Webley-Fosbery revolver, holstered in a shoulder-rig beneath her arm. The pistol was her constant companion. Indeed, so rarely was she without it, it seemed to be a part of her at times. “Always,” she said. Her eyes narrowed as she peered past him. “Hunh.”
St. Cyprian tensed. “What?”
“We’re being watched.”
He fought the urge to turn. “Where?”
“Over there. Near the trees. Trying to be inconspicuous and not doing a very good job of it.” She cracked her knuckles. “Want me to go get them?”
“No. Let’s go in. Leave them to act at their own pace, what?”
Inside was all shadows and cobwebs. The furniture in the front parlour was hidden beneath drop cloths and the windows were covered. The beams of their torches swept across the walls and floor. The wallpaper was peeling, hinting at rising damp. The boards creaked underfoot. They split up, and St. Cyprian found himself strolling through the downstairs library. Or such it had been, he thought. Now, it was a room for empty shelves.
The Order would have stripped everything of value, of course. He hadn’t expected otherwise. He let his torch play across the mouldering drapes, and noted a curious smell on the air – pungent, but subtle. Not the smell of neglect, but something else.
A board creaked. He paused, and then swiftly spun, catching the intruder with his light. She gave a startled yelp and flung up a hand. “Miss Botkin-Watts, as I live and breathe,” St. Cyprian said, somewhat startled. “What are you doing here?”
“I might ask you the same question!”
“I asked first.”
She grimaced and turned away. “Could you point the light somewhere else please?”
“Of course, do forgive me.” He frowned. “I ask again – why are you here?”
She glared at him. “After your visit, I got to thinking – if Tyerman did steal something of my uncle’s, it might still be here. I came to reclaim it.” She paused. “And then I saw you and that other gentleman breaking in.”
“The little, unsavoury fellow,” she said.
“Miss Gallowglass will hardly be pleased with that description.” He paused, considering. “Or maybe she will. She’s unpredictable that way.”
“What are you doing here?” Frances demanded. “Looking for something to steal?”
“Not as such. Besides, place has already been picked clean, as you can see.” St. Cyprian swung his light about. “Likely by Tyerman’s pals in the Order of the Cosmic Ram.”
Frances’ brow furrowed. “That’s the second time you’ve mentioned them. I don’t know who they are.”
“Be glad you don’t.” St. Cyprian guided her out into the corridor. “Still, nice place. Or it was. My friend Bertie lives near here, over on Berkley Street, rather than in the square proper.” He swung the torch about, illuminating discoloured patches on the wall, where pictures had once hung. “And of course we’re in spitting distance of one of the most haunted houses in London.”
“Of course,” Frances said.
He turned the light on her. “I sense a certain lack of belief on your part.”
“Psychical phenomena is hokum.”
“Some of it, yes.” St. Cyprian turned away. “And some of it is decidedly, dangerously real.” A clatter on the stairs brought him around. “Miss Gallowglass?”
“Up here,” she called down. “Found something.”
“What is it?”
“Unpleasant. Hurry up.”
Gallowglass didn’t so much as bat an eye at Frances’ presence. “Attic,” she said, simply, looking the other woman up and down. She led them up the cramped staircase to the attic. It was largely empty, save for a pair of work benches and several halogen lamps. All of the lamps were broken and there were loose papers scattered on the floor. The place had the look of hasty tidying – as if someone had come and boxed up any noxious substances or embarrassing materials.
“The Order has been here,” he said, looking over the work benches. Books had been piled on them, including several battered journals, all filled with lines of precise, cramped handwriting, as well as what he took to be ritual diagrams and alchemical sketches. A chair, with a newspaper folded on the seat, sat nearby. He checked the date on the paper – a week old. “And recently,” he added.
“Forget the chair,” Gallowglass said. “Look at this.”
St. Cyprian turned. At the far end of the attic, situated beneath a grimy skylight was a curious mass of papery matter. Off-white in colour, and glistening with what might have been condensation, it reeked of some unidentifiable chemical and was roughly the size of a man, though at some point it had been torn open. What remained of it hung suspended between the floor and the roof, connected to the structure of the attic by strands of gauzy connective tissue. Gallowglass crouched, studying it. “What do you think? Nasty, innit?”
“Very. What is it?”
She shrugged. “Going to ask you the same thing.”
“A cocoon,” Frances whispered. Her eyes were wide, disbelieving. “But it can’t be, it’s…it’s far too big.”
“Big enough to produce something larger enough to shed these?” St. Cyprian asked, picking up a scale from the floor. “They’re all over. Just like the ones we found last night.”
“Moths simply don’t get this large,” Frances protested. “There has to be some explanation for this.” She went to the closest work bench, and began to go through the notebooks. “Perhaps he was experimenting with some form of hybridisation…”
“Perhaps he was.” St. Cyprian braced himself and reached into the torn mass of the cocoon. Something had caught his eye. When he fished it out, he saw that it was a cufflink. “Though I daresay not the type you’re thinking of.” He tossed it to Gallowglass, who held it up to the light and whistled.
“Note the stylised ram’s head etched depicted on it.”
“Tyerman was a member of the Order of the Cosmic Ram.” He turned to Frances, who was still paging through the notebooks, squinting in the low light of the torch. “Found anything interesting?”
“It’s not possible. It’s madness.” She shook the notebook at him, as if it had personally offended her. “These are the ravings of a deluded individual!”
“And what is he raving about?”
“Tyerman – if these are his notes – claims to have crafted some form of – of alchemical process to turn a man into – into something else. A higher form of life, he calls it. A living portent, whatever that is. And he used my uncle’s samples to do it!”
“Moths are seen by many cultures, not least our own, as harbingers of doom or change. Just the sort of thing the Order of the Cosmic Ram would be interested in.” He spied several marks cut into the plaster of the walls and moved to investigate. Not random marks, but words, carved with an unsteady hand. “Fascinating…”
“What does it say?” Frances asked, crowding close.
“I don’t know. It’s a mix of English, Latin, a few other languages. Like something written by a madman. Or someone who’s mind is…scattered. Confused.” He glanced back at the cocoon. “I suppose apotheosis does that a man.”
“What do you mean?”
“Trust me, you’re better off not knowing.” He picked up one of the notebooks. It was in worse shape than the others, crumpled and torn. The pages were covered in a frantic scrawl that gradually became illegible – dates mostly, and notations that were as cryptic as they were portentous. The last few pages had been savagely torn out. Further examination showed him that it wasn’t the only journal to have been served so. It was as if the writer had been gripped by a sudden frenzy, or spasm. He turned as Gallowglass whistled.
“Look here,” she said, indicating a pile of pale somethings deposited in a far corner. It clattered and rattled in grisly fashion when she gave it a nudge with her toe. “Found that bloke’s head, I think. Sucked the meat clean off.”
St. Cyprian covered his mouth and nose with a handkerchief as he bent to examine the gory detritus more closely. “It’s hematophagic – a blood-drinker.”
“Moths drink nectar,” Frances said absently. She was looking at the notebooks again, clearly overwhelmed by the rapid reordering of her reality. St. Cyprian felt a moment’s sympathy for her. It was always hard, the first time.
“It’s not really a moth though, is it? It’s something far worse than a household pest.” He frowned, trying to recall what he’d learned from Inspector Quennell’s notes. He caught Frances’ attention. “Did your uncle ever mention a fellow named Mallinger? A doctor of entomology, had something of a scandal around the turn of the century.”
“No reason. I believe he was involved in similar experiments as our Mr. Tyerman.” He paused. “It ended poorly for him.”
Gallowglass made to speak, but paused. She gestured sharply, and he followed her gaze to the skylight. A faint sound, like something scraping over the roof tiles, drifted down. He tapped his lips. Gallowglass unlimbered her Webley-Fosbery. The sounds stopped.
Frances was watching them, mouth open, eyes wide. She started to say something, but St. Cyprian waved her to silence. Whatever was up there wasn’t yet aware of them. He wanted to keep it that way for as long as possible.
There was a soft whisper of sound, and then another creak – closer, and lower. He turned as the door to the attic opened. “I knew you’d be here, Charles,” Hawkes said, cocking the revolver he held in one meaty hand.
St. Cyprian stiffened, annoyed at himself as much as at Hawkes. “Hello Hawkes. Fancy seeing you here.”
“You don’t sound surprised,” Hawkes said, covering them with his revolver. He closed the attic door with a kick and stood before it.
“Oh, you couldn’t have made your intentions plainer, old thing. Then, the Order lacks a certain subtlety. Your lot wouldn’t have left this place intact unless there was something about it you wanted to keep hidden.” St. Cyprian glanced at the ruptured cocoon. “When did it hatch, by the by? Night of the first murder, I’m guessing.”
“The night before, we think,” Hawkes said, softly. “Our predictions were off by a week. Then, Tyerman was never very good with dates.”
“Or maybe he knew not to trust you.” St. Cyprian gave a thin smile. “After all, what’s waiting for him now, save a cage in some out of the way hidey-hole?”
“He’s become dangerous. As you well know.”
“And you let him become that way. Why?”
Hawkes glanced around, taking in the strange writing on the walls. “The future.”
“Ah. Was that the plan, then? Your own pet portent, capable of – what?”
“Many things. The whisper of his soft wings will determine the course of our nation for generations to come.”
“The old butterfly flapping its wings and brewing storms in Kathmandu, eh?”
“Something like that. We’ve tried before, but never successfully.”
“Mallinger,” St. Cyprian said.
Hawkes shrugged. “No clue, I’m afraid. I was only tasked with watching the house – and seeing that its contents did not become public knowledge.”
“Bolloxed that up, didn’t you?” Gallowglass interjected.
St. Cyprian waved her to silence. “What now, then? Shoot us?”
“No. Waste of good blood.” Hawkes’ smile was cold and hard. “I need bait to lure Tyerman back, and keep him occupied long enough for him to be subdued. The three of you should be enough for that purpose.” He paused. “Part of me hoped you’d be smart enough not to come. I hate to do this, but sacrifices are required in order to ensure the sanctity of our country.”
“I’m glad you agree.”
“Didn’t say that, old boy. Couldn’t disagree harder, in fact. Miss Gallowglass?” St. Cyprian flung himself at Frances, tackling her to the floor even as Gallowglass’ Webley-Fosbery boomed. As he’d hoped, she’d managed to get the weapon out of its holster without Hawkes being the wiser.
Startled, Hawkes cried out, and his revolver spoke in turn. Glass instruments shattered as his shots went wild. St. Cyprian rolled over and shone his torch directly at Hawkes, blinding him – and catching him in a spotlight.
An instant later, the window burst as something dropped through and into the attic. It shrilled in an ungodly voice, and its wings hissed as they sliced the air. It was shaped like a man, but a man stretched and squeezed into insectile leanness. Its head was utterly unlike that of a human, and yet possessed something of the anthropoid in its shape and design. But the rest was insect – a moth, twisted into a mockery of a man.
It whirled to face Hawkes as he staggered back, still trapped in the beam of St. Cyprian’s torch. Gallowglass had only grazed him, but he was bleeding like a stuck pig. The moth-thing’s proboscis twitched, as if scenting the air. Hawkes’ eyes widened. “No…no, Tyerman, don’t – the Order…!” he began, but the creature wasn’t listening.
With a single, convulsive flap of its wings it pounced. Hawkes screamed and his revolver thundered, but to no avail. The beast shrilled and ducked its head to feed. St. Cyprian scrambled to his feet. “Gallowglass!”
“On it,” she said, already taking aim. She emptied her weapon into the creature, causing it to twitch and whirl, multifaceted eyes shimmering in the light of the torches. It hissed and flapped its wings, filling the air with loose papers and dust. It dropped Hawkes’ mangled body to the floor and took a tentative step towards Gallowglass.
St. Cyprian snatched up a nearby chair and broke it over the creature’s arched back. The chair came apart in his hands as the moth-thing spun to face him, proboscis wet with Hawkes’ blood. He fell back, still holding the useless remnants of the chair. It sprang for him, its serrated talons tearing a strip from his coat as he ducked aside.
Light flashed. Frances had scooped up his torch and shone it into the creature’s face. It hesitated. “Fire,” she said. “We need fire!”
St. Cyprian didn’t argue. He fumbled a lighter from his pocket and snatched up several loose papers – Tyerman’s notes. Quickly, he lit them while the creature was distracted. As the papers flared, he tossed the lighter to Gallowglass. “Burn anything you can find,” he said. The creature twitched at the sound of his voice, but didn’t look away from the light of the torch. He sidled towards Frances. “Quick thinking,” he murmured.
“Moths are attracted to light – often to their own detriment,” she said, not looking at him. Sweat beaded on her face as she strained to hold the torch steady. “They’ll fly into a flame without hesitation.”
“I don’t think this one is going to be so obliging.” He felt a rush of heat and saw that Gallowglass was stuffing burning papers into the remnants of the cocoon. Flames licked up the gauzy mass, climbing towards the roof. Greasy smoke began to billow, and he coughed. The moth-thing shuddered, and something that might have been a voice dripped from its inhuman maw, as it struggled against the pull of the light.
In the light, he could see that beneath that chitinous layer was a human form – a skull just below the surface. Human bones protruded like ghastly ornaments from its monstrous frame, the remnants of the man called Tyerman, now subsumed into a new, more monstrous whole. Whatever the method of his transformation, it had not been a clean thing.
The torch flickered. Died.
The moth-thing lunged with a shriek. St. Cyprian thrust Frances aside as the creature careened into him. The force of its leap carried them back against the wall, hard enough to crack the plaster. He clawed at its head, trying to keep its writhing proboscis from reaching his throat. Its wings hammered the air, making it hard to hear, to see – to think.
It was still talking, or trying to. Its voice was a rasping, buzzing hum and he only caught the occasional word he understood – dates, places, times, some familiar, most not. Garbled portents, or maybe just the delusions of madman turned monster. It flailed at him wildly as it spoke, as if uncertain of its own strength. A revolver barked – not Gallowglass’, but Hawkes’. Frances held it in one shaking hand and fired again, after which it clicked empty.
The moth-thing reeled, screaming. It slung St. Cyprian into a work-bench, which collapsed beneath him. Everything in the attic was old, and riddled with wood-worm. Dry, like kindling. Coughing, he saw the beast rise up on beating wings. Then, there was a sudden whoosh as the cocoon fully took – and a great fire rose up, to lick across the floor and the ceiling. Gallowglass scrambled back as the moth-thing lurched around, attentions now fixed upon the conflagration.
For a moment, it merely stared at the crackling flames in dull incomprehension. Then, shaking its head, it drifted closer. It clutched at its skull, more garbled word-noises spilling from its maw. As if it were arguing with itself – and losing. As St. Cyprian hauled himself to his feet, the moth-thing made a desperate undulation, and plunged into the fire. It began to scream, wings beating wildly, sending errant scraps of burning material across the room.
“We have to get out of here,” St. Cyprian coughed, as smoke began to fill the attic. Gallowglass was already chivvying Frances towards the door. St. Cyprian gently prised the revolver from her hand and turned. The moth-thing struggled against the cocoon, wings humming, limbs flailing in agony – or perhaps ecstasy.
St. Cyprian raised the revolver, but lowered it without firing. Better to leave it to the flames. He hurried down the steps after the others.
They left the house quickly. Some observant neighbour had already rung the fire brigade – and the police, by the sound of it. As they crossed the green, away from the burning house and any pointed questions, St. Cyprian said,” You saved my life, Miss Botkin-Watts. How can I repay you?”
“You could start by telling me what just happened in there.” Frances shook her head. “It made no sense. What did Tyerman hope to accomplish by – by turning himself into a monster?”
“Some men are desperate to control the future, and they will go to any lengths to do so.” St. Cyprian paused and looked back towards the burning house. There would be questions, of course, and complaints. Moxley would be unhappy for sure. And the Order of the Cosmic Ram would add another black mark next to his name in their accounting books. “Frankly, we should be glad it seems not to have worked.”
He spied something on the ground, and looked down. A scrap of paper was stuck to his shoe. He retrieved it. “What is it?” Gallowglass asked.
“A scrap from Tyerman’s notes…a date. Seventh of September, 1940. Fire from the skies.” Suddenly thoughtful, he looked up at the night sky. He felt a sudden thrill of unease, as if someone had walked over his grave.
Frances shook her head. “That’s more than a decade from now. What could it mean?”
“No clue.” He crumpled the scrap of paper and shoved it into his coat. “I suppose we’ll find out in due course.” He shrugged. “That’s the thing about the future – it’ll all happen eventually, whether we like it or not.”
Jazz Age Britain is rife with the impossible. Fashionable unwrapping parties awaken the dead. Ghouls stalk the Underground. Krampus steals the sinful. Famous magicians are kidnapped by shadows. Only the Royal Occultist can set these right.
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